That troublesome mini-genre of Yanks ensnared by corrupt Third World legal systems is back in “Brokedown Palace,” a well acted but problematic drama that plunks two innocent teenage American girls into a Thai prison. Aside from the hyperventilated “Midnight Express,” this format has not attracted the public’s fancy, as in the recent “Red Corner” and “Return to Paradise.” Other apparent commercial handicap is the presence of two adolescent characters at the center of what is otherwise a serious, adult-oriented story, a formula that has not been clicking much with young audiences. B.O. chances look modest.
Although producer/co-story writer Adam Fields and first-time screenwriter David Arata based their tale on numerous case histories involving young and often gullible Americans who have apparently been set up and then confined for long stretches in Southeast Asian prisons, the driving force behind the picture is, fortunately, not to unleash an outraged expose at the unfairness or brutality of foreign judicial procedures. More modestly and appealingly, it largely trains its focus on the emotions and changes undergone by the two girls, best friends who unwittingly find themselves in horrific, seemingly intractable circumstances.
With the highly appealing Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale in the leads, pic has no problem drawing one into the story. Alice Marano (Danes) is a working class Ohio girl with lowly career prospects who proposes a blow-out trip with her lifelong pal, college-bound Darlene Davis (Beckinsale), to celebrate their high school graduation. Telling their parents their destination is Hawaii, they instead fly to more exotic Bangkok, where they are bailed out of a little jam by a cute, raffish Aussie, Nick Parks (Daniel Lapaine), who offends the wilder, more readily available Alice by taking the serious and more cautious Darlene to bed instead.
At the young man’s prompting, the impressionable Darlene convinces the balky Alice to come along on a quick trip to Hong Kong, where they’ll hook up with Nick. However, the girls get no further than the airport, where their bags are searched and are found to contain cannisters of heroin. It’s clear they’ve been used as “mules” by Nick, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve been caught red-handed in a country that deals very harshly with drug traffickers.
After a quick trial and fruitless intervention by Darlene’s dad, the girls are sentenced to 33 years in a women’s prison where, on balance, the filth seems like a bigger problem than the stern but relatively even-handed guards. The girls stay sane and vaguely optimistic by sticking together and trying to attract attention to their plight, finally enlisting the services of expat Yank attorney Hank Greene (Bill Pullman) and his Thai lawyer wife (Jacqueline Kim), whose limited success in uncovering inconsistencies, duplicity and corruption in the government’s handling of the case is never quite enough to overcome the seemingly unbreakable hard line taken by the authorities.
Much of the effort involves tracking down Nick Parks, who has vanished and was clearly using an alias. As a longtime resident, Hank knows the games local officials play, but he’s still an outsider, and his creative efforts to gain leverage and make deals work only up to a point. Meanwhile, inside the pen, Darlene begins to crack, accusing her friend of ruining her life and refusing to talk to her for a time. Alice then engineers an escape attempt, which sets the stage for a dramatic final appeal for justice that is resolved by an exceptional act of self-sacrifice.
From the way he adroitly steers the drama away from the xenophobic and sensationalistic potential in such material, director Jonathan Kaplan clearly recognizes the traps and limitations of such a story. That still doesn’t solve the problems, however, since the film focuses almost exclusively on Westerners and presents the Thai criminal justice system as inscrutable and generally sinister. Granted, latter could easily be true and any establishment in the world could be presented this way if seen from the p.o.v. of an unfairly accused individual. But it’s close to a no-win situation dramatically, culturally and politically, and Kaplan deals with it plausibly enough by concentrating on the performances and the interior conflicts they reveal.
Danes and Beckinsale confirm their status as two of the young actresses on the scene today most worth watching. As the edgier and more impulsive of the teens, Danes sharply, but without cliches, conveys the mentality of a girl who’s open to most anything that seems exciting or fun, who lies because she can get away with it but generally has good instincts and tends not to fool herself. As her more inward, thoughtful friend, Beckinsale is also very effective at getting across layered character traits and emotions, notably her deep regret and embarrassment at having been so naive that lie beneath her stoical exterior and controlled anger at Alice.
Other featured thesps are convincing as well. Pullman wryly underplays the lawyer whose mercenary motives slightly outflank his idealistic instincts, Kim rallies nicely with him as his astute wife, and Lapaine provides just the right dubious appeal as the manipulative seducer. Lou Diamond Phillips is in briefly as an unhelpful U.S. Embassy official.
Thai locations have been atmospherically reproduced in the Philippines, although some scene-setting shots appear to have actually been grabbed in Bangkok. Newton Thomas Sigel’s lensing is handsome in an appropriately gritty way, and David Newman’s score is spiked by some unusual covers of well known tunes. Title refers to a Grateful Dead song lyric.